Review by Jon Kunitsky
Unnamed Press / June 4, 2019
In Cruising: An Intimate History of a Radical Pastime, Alex Espinoza traces the etymology, cultural origins, and contemporary history of this particular form of gay exhibitionism. Cruising is not new, he says unabashedly, and neither are cruisers; we are, instead, tenants of history and crucial players in queer liberation.
The earliest appearance of the word “cruising” took place in Hutchins Hapgood’s 1903 book The Autobiography of a Thief. There, the word was associated with female sex workers, “cruisers” meaning “street-walkers.” Espinoza reports Timothy Blanning’s research demonstrating that it derives from the Dutch kruisen, which means to both “cross” or “intersect,” as well as to breed or to “arrange the mating of specific plants or animals.”
But “cruising” as a term is not just etymologically diverse. It has a history and a participatory population that spans thousands of years and many countries and cultures around the globe, each time period and location with its own tumultuous and liberating past. Today, it is most strongly associated with gay culture, where “cruising” continues to be the act of physically crossing and recrossing in the same place. It involves slight messages between men to indicate sexual interest with the intent to hook up in a discreet public space: movie theaters, alleyways, bathrooms, leather bars, public parks. Cruising men meet other men anonymously to exchange sexual favors, with only a glance, a gesture, a particular handkerchief color to let the other know his motive.
Espinoza frames his anthropological survey in chronological order and fills it with a combination of brief historical accounts, starting with Greek antiquity and the “molly houses” of 18th century England and ending with the smartphone age of dating apps and sex sites. His analysis includes high-minded scholars in queer studies and literature such as Gloria Anzaldúa and Edmund White, and it captures the terror of the AIDS crisis in the 1980s. Espinoza’s varied textual strategies encompass a columned list of the “Hankie Code” used by gay men to broadcast their sexual interests and preferences to nearby queers (top, bottom, slave, master) as well as discussion of the international human rights crisis in Russia and Uganda, where gay men must remain closeted to stay alive. The book even touches on George Michael’s coming out, forced upon him by a media bent on the intrigue of exposing a gay man’s sex life.
What makes Espinoza’s work stand out is not his historical thoroughness, however, but a refreshing candor in his appraisal of his own sexual escapades. In the introduction, Espinoza claims his phallus led him to enlightenment, and that he “eagerly followed.” It’s shockingly entertaining to see Espinoza identify with these men who place themselves in danger for the reward of sexual pleasure. He knows firsthand that these men want “not just to be fucked, but to be loved.” Herein lies Cruising’s accessibility for lay readers, however unfamiliar they might be with the queer theory and political or academic writings Espinoza weaves into his narrative. In fact, Cruising is a great primer for issues concerning homosexuality in America prior to diving into the dense language of Bersani or Anzaldúa.
Espinoza covers a lot of ground in making a case to “dispel the misconceptions and myths associated with cruising... [and] document this significant cultural identifier.” As a “closeted Mexican kid with a disability,” born in the tierra sagrada of Michoacán, Mexico, Espinoza is able not only to dissect the more dominant experiences of white gay men, but to explore complicated issues concerning race, the “ongoing surveillance of bodies of color,” and the impositions that limit “the full participation of [the] brown body in ways white gay men do not necessarily encounter.”
Given its breadth, Cruising is a slim volume. Part academia, part entertainment, it’s an economical account of gay history, peppered with Espinoza’s field work: interviews and firsthand accounts from acquaintances, as well as personal stories from his own life. Cruising is as much a memoir of a gay man’s sexual experiences as it is a historical journey. “I am not here to explain the intentions of those who participate in a sexual encounter in any of the many bathrooms at rest stops, Targets, and Nordstroms across the country,” he writes. “But I can speak for myself.”
This is all to the book’s benefit. In the wider discourse, critical attention to books on queer culture varies. Often these books exist on the fringes of the literati, or as a supplement to heterosexual understandings of historical accounts. The practice of seeking anonymous sex in public spaces is therefore seen as the practice of gay men desperate to find an outlet for their sexual urges; the act is isolated, aberrant, and in no way tied to the oppressive state or societal norms. However, some books, such as Leo Bersani’s Homos, appropriately tease out the philosophical implications of such behavior, the underpinnings and the future that may lie ahead. These books mostly come to similar conclusions as Espinoza’s: same-sex relations were clouded in secrecy, hidden or banished forcibly by law or social stigma, and were therefore inherently political. The queer body, the homosexual encounter, become loci of protest, their existence defying the law and order of an unequal land. “The promiscuous homosexual is a sexual revolutionary...Parks, alleys, subway tunnels, garages, streets-- these are the battlefields,” writes John Rechy in The Sexual Outlaw, an epigraph used to open Cruising.
Espinoza takes this idea further, claiming that even quiet, “safe” encounters (men as lovers in private beds) are subversive to the dominant heteronormativity of American culture and are, in many ways, “disturbing the peace in a slight and unseen way.” This, the quietness of it, somehow provokes a greater rage. If queerness does not appear in sequins and leather, subconscious homophobia has nowhere to hide. As Foucault says, “It is not the departure for pleasure that is intolerable, it is waking up happy.”
It is not the parade and rainbow flags, it is the happiness and freedom of choice that threaten. Reading this, as a young gay man myself, was eye-opening. Espinoza, aware of the reality, focuses on the desire for connection between gay men and on the communities that form underground despite prejudice, exclusion, and political and social erasure. What always survives, says Espinoza, is the impulse to form closed circles, isolated from and subversive in relation to the dominant culture with “the strangers who... have found this place, this secret place, to come and be together.”
Being younger than the author, and having realized my sexuality at a time when dating and hookup culture had already moved almost exclusively online, I have never experienced the kind of cruising Espinoza describes. Whether this is a privilege or a loss, I cannot say. On one hand, how lucky I am, and others like me are, to have an outlet for sexual exploration that can be as anonymous or as intimate as we please via an electronic interface, rather than being trapped in anonymity. How lucky we are to have a drug that can prevent exposure to HIV, to live in a country with laws solidifying marriage equality, where an out gay man can run for president. Inevitably, with such social and political strides, the subversive act of gay exhibitionism must lose its bite, right? In Cruising, Espinoza quotes Los Angeles-based visual artist Danny Jauregui as saying, “I’m interested to know then if cruising is the result of a closeted culture...Or another means of maintaining the integrity of a subculture that is uniquely our own.”
What brings to life Espinoza’s accounts of cruising is his ability to write earnestly, and to introduce a kind of empathy toward those who find refuge in bathroom stalls and public parks—those who continue to flee to the dying escapism of cruising. He understands men—like him, and unlike me and so many of my generation—who search for a greater connection beyond the ordinary.
“My experiences have been forged from migration and movement, and by the constant and steady flow of bodies and ideas perpetually in transit,” writes Espinoza. “I see patterns and movements in everything...movement is in our blood.” In a world of constant flux, there is only one certainty: the human condition, its primordial hunger. The driving force that propels us together, apart, then back together again. In the toil of the everyday, the shifting of time and changing of seasons, there is still the human, the divine animal, its powerful craving for human connection and the “desire to be with one’s own kind.” Cruising, Espinoza says, is this manifestation of the human in transit, the self’s endless cycle of migration “from one fixed point to another and then another” as we “come closer to becoming that person we always imagined ourselves to be.”
Cruising, outside the bonds of law and heteronormative order, outside of straight or gay, white or black, finds a kind of freedom for its actors. “We are born of movement, out of a desire to forge connections with others in order to feel less alone,” writes Espinoza, “as it has always been.”
Jon Kunitsky is a freelance writer pursuing a degree in English Literature & Communication Rhetoric at the University of Pittsburgh. His writing can be found in TABLE, Pitt Med, The Pitt News, and on Hypable. To read more of his work, visit jonkunitsky.com.